It is widely accepted that competition is a driving force of progress. This is a tenant that our country was built around, and it seems to work pretty well. Whoever can do something the best will profit from it the most. There is no one to hold your hand through inferior work. It is a philosophy centered on excellence and that is exactly what we demand. Our system of scientific research works the same way, but does that mean it’s right?
Does competition hinder scientific progress?
* Disclaimer – In this particular conversation I am referring to research that is funded with the intent to improve the quality of life of mankind on a large scale such as vaccines and alternative energy solutions. I do understand the need of competition when a company is developing say, a new material to lower costs, for example *
The way competition in science works is that a researcher must be able to publish his work before anyone else who is working on a similar project. What this engenders is a policy of secrecy regarding techniques and findings in all ongoing research. While this system may be the most beneficial for the researchers personal profit, I believe it hurts the greater good. If several researchers are all working on the same project, but not collaborating, then they are likely to all commit the same basic mistakes, slowing down the process. We also lose out on any ideas that might have come out of a free pool of ideas. Imagine if peanut butter and jelly were kept secret from each other? We’d still be living in the dark ages!
The obvious question is: why does a competition driven system work for the economy but not for research?
Science is not a business and should not be treated as such
When the desired outcome of a research project is some basic knowledge that will benefit everyone, no single scientist should be able to take credit for it. Knowledge is not a commodity to be bought and sold, it does not lose value the more people that obtain it, and it is certainly not something that one should be able to benefit from by not sharing it with people that it could potentially help. Imagine if instead of keeping their work separate, all of the scientists working on cancer remedies pooled all of their information. There could be a pantheon of information on what techniques work, and which were dead ends. I’m not saying that we would definitely have solved the problem by now, but having all of this information available would certainly have saved someone from pursuing a dead end, and would have provided at least one new idea. Maybe it is nieve of me to think that the true goal of science is to help people, but if it is profit then we sure aren’t doing a very good job!
Do you think competition in science is a blessing or a curse?
Schofield, P., Bubela, T., Weaver, T., Portilla, L., Brown, S., Hancock, J., Einhorn, D., Tocchini-Valentini, G., Hrabe de Angelis, M., & Rosenthal, N. (2009). Post-publication sharing of data and tools Nature, 461 (7261), 171-173 DOI: 10.1038/461171a